U-C: What I See

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Endings and Beginings


It has been a busy week. I intended to share impressions as the worship, fellowship and business of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church unfolded, but most days began by 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning and ended at midnight or later. Perhaps next year I'll be able to function more as an observer and less as a participant.

I am so grateful to all of you who have encouraged and engaged with me as my moderatorial term has progressed. This has been, and probably will remain, the greatest vocational experience of my life. I've discovered that I love the whole church, and that there is far more out there to appreciate than I ever could have imagined. I am a far different person, and my faith is far deeper, because of the way God has spoken to me through my preaching and studying the lectionary, and through all of the amazing experiences of God's people around the world.

Some of you may not have heard that I have been asked to serve as the first full-time, Executive Director in the sixty-two year history of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (www.presbypeacefellowship.org). I have accepted that offer with enthusiasm, after months of wondering where God was calling me, and especially after a week of ruminating on the questions of vocation and call as I hiked the migrant journey in the desert earlier this month.

This call will allow me to honor the core convictions that God has placed on my heart over the past twenty years: that we are called to the margins, that we are called to take risks for what we believe, that we are called to build up a strong church, that we are called to pick a particular place in the world and to commit to that place and its concern's until God places a clear call on us to move on.

Kitty and Teo and I will remain on the border, and we will continue our work with migrants who are at risk in the borderlands. As we thought about the possibility of trying to move to be closer to our families, we realized that we couldn't leave the border at a time when so many lives are at stake in this part of the world.

Kitty and I hope to recommit to another three years as reservists with Christian Peacemaker Teams, and the National Committee of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship has encouraged me to understand that commitment, as well as my volunteer commitments with migrants, as a part of my work with PPF. Kitty will remain in her job as the Faith Community Coordinator for the Food Security Office of the Southern AZ Food Bank, which she has loved since being invited into that position a year ago. Teo will go to school at a small school two blocks from our home that he got to choose (with some input from his parents) as he transitions to his middle school years. The three of us will remain connected to Sitting Tree, the intentional community where we live in Tucson. Kitty will remain active at Pima Friends Meeting, where she has just led the Quakers into establishing a weekly "Meeting for Worship with a concern for Peace" as an expression of concern regarding the War on Terror. And I expect that I will recommit to my home church, Southside Presbyterian, and help us to transition into whatever God has in store for us next.

I will begin my responsibilities with the Peace Fellowship on August 1rst. We hope to become a vibrant organization that will welcome a new generation of Presbyterians of all ages into direct action for the causes of God's peace and justice in the world. There are many places where the work will begin, but you can certainly expect that one of the priorities will be to begin by choosing half a dozen Presbyterian Colleges and Seminaries where we will make serious organizing efforts.

I have appreciated your encouaragement to continue writing for U-C:What-I-See. Of all the strategic decision I made as I started my moderatorial term, this one was by far the most important and has had the most far-reaching consequences. I have decided that I will continue writing under the same blog title and at the same address. By late August, you can expect to see a link to the blog from the Peace Fellowship website, along with a somewhat refreshed and more up-to-date personal website.

I have also enjoyed the conversation that many of you have had at "It's-Your-Turn" in response to my blog. (By the way, I enjoyed the recent spate of submissions regarding globalization and Latin America, and I was sorry not to have time to engage.) So, yes, let's keep that conversation going as well!

Dave Hackett has earned my undying gratitude for turning me into a blogger! Thank you.

This afternoon, I will be leaving for ten days in England with Kitty, Teo, and Kitty's family. We will be doing a "Quaker Roots" tour, which seems a particularly appropriate way for a consensus-building moderator to finish my term. Later, I will spend a week with John Fife and Gene LeFebvre doing the High Desert Spirituality Week at Ghost Ranch in July, and then two weeks of backpacking and traveling in New England for my son Teo and me. You should expect only sporadic entries on the blog over the next two months as I reconnect with my family and make the transition to the work of the Peace Fellowship. I will attend the Moderators' "Hope for the Church" gathering at Montreat and the Presbyterian Women's gathering in Louisville in a few weeks.

That's it for now. Blessings on all of you as your summer unfolds. Please keep the concerns of migrants in the desert in the summer heat, and the cause of nonviolent peacemakers around the world in a time of violence, before you as you spend time in prayer, worship and work this summer.



Saturday, June 10, 2006

A final Migrant Trail Reflection: Death in the Desert

It wasn’t real, but the emotion evoked in me surprised me. At the end of our seventy-five mile trek through the desert, a group of about twenty of us agreed to a nonviolent witness as we passed the Border Patrol Tucson Sector headquarters in Tucson. It was to be a “die-in,” a simple dramatization on the sidewalk of migrants who are dying in the desert. Though I hadn’t intended to volunteer, my thirteen-year-old traveling companion Ben attended a gathering of those interested in participating that was held in our last campsite on Saturday afternoon. A little later, each of those who were to “die” on the side of the road asked someone to be their “mourner,” and I agreed to do so for Ben.

As we took our last water break on Sunday morning, our little group took some foam sleeping pads and went on ahead. It was telling that those who were dying needed the pads to lie on. At one hundred and six degrees, the gravel and concrete right-of-way between the sidewalk and Ajo Road would have badly burned them. Ben was seventh among those who had agreed to die. Without saying a word, he lay down on his stomach, fully extended with an arm outstretched, reaching toward an empty water bottle. Silently, I knelt beside him, leaning over his prostrate form on the gravel with my head in my hands.

My own emotion shocked me. Perhaps it was a natural feeling that welled up in me as we came to the end of a powerful and deeply meaningful experience. Maybe it was the particular connection I feel with Ben, and my more visceral realization that thirteen-year-olds like Ben account for some of the death statistics in the desert each year. Maybe it was the memory of encountering folks in similar condition during my “Samaritan Runs” in the desert over the last few years four years.

I never looked up as the line of walkers, now almost two hundred strong, moved silently past our witness. I focused on Ben, and on what it means when we lose children in the desert every year. Already this year, our current death count is ninety-nine men, women and children since October 1rst. Every one of those people has a story and a family that mourned for them the same way Ben’s family and I would mourn for Ben. It’s way to easy for the bodies to become statistics. As we finished our walk and drove home, the local NPR affiliate announced the death of someone in the desert over the weekend, just twenty miles or so to the west of where we had been walking all week.

Something is drastically wrong with the kind of desperation that leads thousands of people each day into the danger of the borderlands in an attempt to help their family survive. It’s wrong theologically for those of us who profess the Christian faith but then refuse to take seriously the Biblical imperative to welcome the stranger and to care for the suffering. It’s wrong politically for those of us who profess to be a caring and generous people to turn away from the crossers, insisting that they made their own choices and we’re not responsible for their welfare. It’s even worse when we demonize them as “potential terrorists” even while most agree that our economic well-being is built on the labor they desire to offer. It’s wrong economically for those of us who receive the benefits of cheap goods in the global economy to refuse to recognize that we will be unable to sustain the vast, growing, inequity that exists between those of us who have the good fortune to be the winners in the global economy and those who work on the underside of that economy and who find it impossible to feed their families, much less dream of something better for their children as I do for mine. It’s misguided from a security point of view to think that we can ever provide for the security of our children if we are unwilling to recognize the need for a modicum of economic stability for the children just to our south.

Seven days in the desert. Seventy-five miles. Temperatures well above one hundred degrees. This has been an experience that Ben and I won’t soon forget.

May God’s blessings rain down, this day, upon all of God’s people, and may each of us commit to be a part of that blessing.


Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Pentecost Moment

Sisters and Brothers,

This is our next to last day in the desert. Because it is Saturday, our ranks have swelled to over one hundred people as we’ve walked almost thirteen miles along State Route 86 toward Tucson. We’re facing the Tucson Mountains now, and each step brings the low, ragged peaks out of the haze and our destination a little bit closer. The group arrives at our campsite around one p.m., though this dusty lot covered with broken bottles and fire ants barely counts as a campsite in any of our minds.

Just before dusk, storm clouds darkened the sky over the mountains to our east. As the mostly dry dust storm moved crossed over the mountains from the Tucson into the Altar Valley, the wind began to gust so hard that they blew some of the powerlines off their poles and started a small brush fire about a tenth of a mile to our west. Within moments, the dust and grit in the air was so thick that I couldn’t see more than a few feet away. There was nowhere to go for protection from the stinging sand and dirt. Some in our group huddled between a couple of cars and trailers. Others simply laid face-down on top of their tents in an effort to keep them from blowing away. A little distance away, several from the group huddled together on the ground and hugged one another – facing in – trying to protect themselves from the dust and pebbles and grit in the air.

I couldn’t help but think of the passage in the second chapter of Acts that described the moment of Pentecost as the “rushing of the wind.” I’ve never really thought of that moment as a violent moment before, but perhaps that’s what it was for the disciples too.

This land can be so unforgiving. I continue to marvel not that so many die trying to cross this desert – but that so many others pit themselves against these harsh conditions and manage to survive.

The wind has died down, now, and I’m sitting on a tarp in my camp chair, writing by the light of my headlamp. Our last night in the desert. Tomorrow there are just a few more miles to the end of this remarkable pilgrimage.

Our small delegation from Christian Peacemaker Teams that has hiked together all week reflected earlier in our trip on these words from Jeremiah 17.

Thus says the Lord:

Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.

“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord – whose trust is the Lord.” I’ve been thinking all week about our notions of security as a nation and as a people. Somehow, spending billions of dollars in an effort to militarize the border and protect ourselves from migrants trying to come find a job seems a long way from the kind of trust that doesn’t fear, isn’t anxious, and doesn’t cease to bear fruit.

May the winds of Pentecost blow strong.


Water from "Arizona"


We walked a twelve-mile day today. Light cloud cover. Temperatures around 104 or 105 degrees. Humidity much higher than normal for the normally dry month of June. This is the kind of day that I’ve learned over the years is cause for concern for the groups I’ve shepherded through the desert. The less direct sun seems somehow less threatening, but it is no less deadly and heat stroke is a constant worry.

As we were walking through the little crossroads community called Three Points, we hit highway 86 and turned east for the last twenty miles that would take us into Tucson. Babaquivori – the distinctive mountain that had been our companion to the east throughout our journey, now lay well behind us. It seemed strange to me – a little disorienting – not to be able to look at the mountain as we walked.

As we walked past the few stores on the highway that passes through Three Points, I noticed a white pick-up truck with a man and woman seated in the cab, parked on the opposite side of the road. I confess that I wondered about them. Though most folks honk and wave as they drive by, not everyone is friendly towards the walkers. After the entire group had walked by, the truck swung a U-turn and drove slowly past us again. As the truck disappeared, I still couldn’t tell if its occupants were friendly or not, but I put them out of my mind and concentrated on the last mile of the journey for the day.

Twenty minutes later, we entered the beautiful, brick floored adobe sanctuary of Serenity Baptist Church in Three Points, a community deeply divided over the issues around undocumented folks. This courageous pastor and congregation, while recognizing the ambivalence about migrants that exists in their community, have graciously received the walkers for each of the last three years. You have no idea how it felt to be welcomed with air conditioning by the fifth night of our journey.

As Kat Rodriguez, the lead organizer of the walk, finished orienting us to the building and reading a welcoming letter from the pastor, she acknowledged, in Spanish, the man standing next to me, and then explained in English that he and his girlfriend had seen us on the highway. They were so moved as they watched the group pass by single file, each of us carrying a cross as we walked in the mid-day heat, that they had driven to a nearby convenience store and purchased two cases of bottled water. The cases were stacked at his feet, and he seemed shy and a little non-plussed as Kat introduced him by the name “Arizona.” When we invited him to stay and join us for lunch, he declined, saying that he had to go because his girlfriend was waiting in the truck.

Two days later, as we finished our walk now more than one hundred and fifty walkers strong, “Arizona” reappeared and passed out dozens and dozens of the water bottles as the walkers marched past.

A simple gift – maybe the most elegant gift possible – water in the desert.


Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A Sixteen Mile Day

It’s three a.m. when someone shakes me awake. It’s my third night sleeping in the desert. The moon has shifted, becoming a little bit larger each night than the tiny sliver it was when we began, but by three o’clock it has disappeared behind Baboquivari – the holy mountain a few miles to the west where the O’odham people believe all life originated. Slowly, the sixty or seventy of us begin to move quickly and quietly to pack our things, and grab a quick cup of coffee and a fistful of granola or a bagel. By four a.m., we’ve circled up for announcements, and formed a line – two by two – to begin the longest day we will face this week, sixteen miles and about eight hours of hiking.

We begin hiking in the dark, each person making out the shape of the one in front. In some ways, this is the kind of hiking that is the most authentic to the migrant experience. At this time of year, the folks who are savvy walk all night, preferring to encounter the dangers of cactus and rocky washes in the dark to the intense, brutal heat of the day. Our commitment is similar. We hope to be finished our hike by noon and then to huddle under tarps or the shade of mesquite trees through the desert heat in the afternoon.

By four thirty, though the sun has yet to break over the mountains to our east, we are walking in the soft, gentle light that is common in the early morning of the desert. We try to walk quickly, though our large group makes it difficult to move efficiently. By six thirty, the sun is fully visible over the mountains and now climbing into the sky as we leave the protected nature preserve that we’ve been hiking in for the first few days.

Now we’re walking straight north along route 286. On the website for Derechos Humanos, a human rights organization in Tucson that co-sponsors our journey, I’ve read the names of those who have died in the desert, and the places where their bodies were discovered. (http://www.derechoshumanosaz.net) Many, many of them have made it out to this road, only to die waiting for someone to stop and offer them aid. Just this week, we learned the story of a woman who fractured a bone in her leg, was abandoned in the desert, and somehow survived for more than three weeks, eventually crawling on her hands and knees to make it to the road.

We walk single file along the shoulder of the road, stepping further to the right each time someone in the back yells “car,” then back to the edge of the pavement when the vehicle has passed. Five out of every six vehicles that pass us are the Border Patrol, and after a few miles of walking in the increasingly hot sun, we arrive at a Border Patrol check point. It’s located about twenty miles north of the border on this road, similar to most north/south roads here in the southwest. All cars are stopped going north so that the Border Patrol can determine citizenship. As we stand in a long line in front of their trailer, several agents go down the line, questioning each person: “What’s your citizenship?” they ask. “U.S.,” most of us reply. “Where were you born?” the agents continue, and most of us satisfy their questions with our answers. Those with brown skin, however, are singled out. “Let’s see some I.D.,” an agent demands when the person in front of me says that he is from San Antonio. “Why do I need to show you I.D.,” the walker asks, “when no one else does?” “Hey man,” the agents responds, “if you’re from San Antonio, you know that you always have to carry you’re I.D.”

Eventually, the agents are satisfied that we aren’t smuggling anyone, and we walk on. We’re ten or eleven miles into the day now, and stopping every mile and a half to refill our water bottles. Each time we do, I give thanks to God. I’m drinking at least a quart of water per hour, with no thought at all to conservation. What if I was responsible to carry all I could consume? Most migrants I’ve met hike into the desert with with just a gallon jug of water in each hand, and maybe a small backpack with some cans of tuna fish and refried beans. Many of them will be in the desert for at least three or four days – and maybe for a week or more.

By eleven a.m., we still have several miles to go, and the sun is now almost directly overhead. The temperature is still only a little over a hundred degrees, well below what it will be almost every day starting a few weeks from now. My feet are hot, but I’m grateful that both Ben and I are blister free. I’m fighting a pretty bad heat rash that covers my legs, in spite of the fact that I’ve worn long pants all the time. I’ve been using 50 SPF sunblock each day, and I feel fortunate that I’m not burned. My muscles ache, but I began the walk in good physical condition and I’m feeling relatively strong.

As we finish up for the day just after non, I think about the migrants – probably as many as several hundred of them – who are spread out within a fifty mile radius of us. They’re likely to be sitting in washes under mesquite, hiding from Border Patrol flyovers, and more importantly, trying to keep from baking in the hot sun. Mostly, I expect that they’re trying to conserve their energy and not to drink any more than they have to, hoping to be well-prepared for another night of hiking in the desert.

You know, among the laws that God gave to the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness was the repeated admonition to welcome the stranger. They were both a wandering people themselves, and a people who understood that true security comes only in offering to share what little one has with those who are even more needy. Later, Jesus picked up on the same theme as he continually pressed God’s command to reach out to those on the margins. “I was hungry, and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger (read – without documents) and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me.” God is clearly invested in our commitment to live our faith by welcoming the stranger.

I’ve never felt that so strongly as I do today.


Monday, June 05, 2006

Reflection from Altar Valley, in the Sonoran Desert

Desert heat cannot be contained. It is unbridled and headstrong and destructive and beautiful and brutal.

Hugo Rodriguez Ramirez - 41 years old, died 04 - 05

Hugo Rodriguez Ramirez – 41 years old, died 04 – 05

That’s all I know about Hugo, He was 41 years old when he died in the desert about a year ago – sometime between October 2004 and September 2005. I just turned 42 in mid-May, so we were the same age when Hugo died last year. The differences between us probably could not have been more pronounced, and as a result, I am hiking seventy-five miles through the Sonoran Desert as an act of spiritual discipline and remembrance for the thousands who have died on the U.S./Mexico border over the last ten years. And I’m carrying a small, white cross with Hugo’s name on it.

I wonder about his family. As I walk along through the desert, I find myself wondering where he lived. Was he a farmer in a village in the La Condon jungle of Chiapas? Did he live on the outskirts of Mexico City where he worked as a taxi driver, or a high-school teacher, or a construction worker? Maybe he was living in Nogales or Hermosillo, Sonora, and working (like well over a million other Mexicans) in a U.S.-owned factory for about fifty dollars a week in a town where a gallon of milk costs three dollars and fifty cents.

Wherever he lived, and whatever work he was doing, Hugo felt desperate enough to head into the desert. I’ve been out here for three days now. We’ve hiked about thirty miles in temperatures that have been hovering right around one hundred degrees each day. So far, I’ve drunk eight or nine gallons of water – water I drink with the guilty knowledge that there will be a trailer with supplies to refill my water bottle and a handful of fruit or trail mix about every mile and a half or two miles. Dinner and lunch meals are being prepared in Tucson and brought to our campsite each afternoon. Five gallon plastic buckets fashioned into composting toilets and tarps for shade come out of the U-Haul each afternoon when we finish our hike, and my sleeping bag has kept me warn even as the temperatures have dropped forty degrees each night. My route is planned and I have no fear of deportation if I’m discovered. Hugo knew none of these luxuries.

Hugo’s trip is likely to have gone more like this. He is likely to have arrived in Altar, Sonora, about sixty miles south of the southwestern Arizona border, having already contracted with a coyote who committed to smuggle him across the border, probably as part of a group of fifteen or twenty people. It would have cost him between fifteen hundred and two thousand dollars, paid for by borrowing the money at thirty-five percent interest against any property he might have owned – either a house or maybe a small plot of land. If he had no collateral, he might have been fortunate enough to have a family member in the U.S. who agreed to pay for his passage. Failing either of those options, it is quite possible that he sold himself into a form of indentured servitude, committing to pay the coyote with his earnings from a job already arranged for him in the U.S.

In any case, he probably had instructions to go to a private dormitory once he got off the bus in Altar. For a few dollars a night, he might have found refuge in a hostel operated by families that have built an extra room onto their homes or filled their living rooms with crude, plywood bunk-beds (three levels high with no mattresses) in another family’s effort to create a livelihood on yet another small part of the migrant journey. Maybe, though, Hugo ended up at CCAMYN – the Community Center to Support Migrants and the Needy, run by a group of volunteers from the Catholic Church in Altar. They would have taken his basic information, offered medical care and a brief talk on surviving the desert, a hot meal, and a bed and a shower before Hugo headed off the next day.

From there, the dangerous part of Hugo’s journey probably began. He almost certainly traveled north from Altar to “The Brickyard” – a poor neighborhood a few miles south of the little, dusty town of Sasabe, Sonora, located right on the border. That trip probably took place in a van – where he was one of twenty-five to thirty men, women, children and infants who each paid twenty dollars to travel the sandy, rutted, washboard road at breakneck speeds as his van made the two-hour journey. Along the way, he would have stopped by a checkpoint, set up by the Mexican Government’s migrant support agency called “Grupo Beta,” in order to be counted and given last minute counsel about the dangers of the desert crossing. On a recent trip I made down the Sasabe/Altar road, the agents told us that they had counted more than twenty-one hundred migrants headed north that day.

And then, finally, Hugo would have begun the hike in the desert that I began three days ago. Perhaps, as happened with a young man someone in our group encountered yesterday, he couldn’t keep up with his group and eventually was abandoned – left to his own devices with a couple of gallons of water, wandering in the brutally hot, unforgiving Sonoran Desert for a couple more days till his body succumbed to the intense heat and he could no longer survive. Maybe, as often happens, his group scattered when a Border Patrol helicopter flew overhead – as one just flew over my own head while I was writing these words. I have met dozens of migrants who became separated from their group in moments like that one.

Maybe Hugo actually managed to stay with his group for the fifty or eighty or one hundred mile hike until they were picked up by their driver, crammed into a Chevy Suburban or the back of a Ford pick-up. It’s quite possible that Hugo made it that far, only to be chased by the Border Patrol at high speeds until the driver rolled the vehicle, or hit someone else, or blew a worn tire. I have been called to the hospital several times over the years to provide pastoral care for the survivors of such accidents.

If Hugo had made it wherever he was going, he would likely have found work – maybe using false papers – within a week of his arrival. Perhaps he would have started out carrying shingles for a roofing crew in Denver, or washing dishes in northern Indiana, or cutting chicken parts in Western Kentucky, or maybe picking tomatoes in Central Florida. He would have moved in with ten or twelve other men where he would have paid twenty-five dollars a week toward his share in a single room with a sink fridge and stove in one corner and a toilet and shower in the other – rented to the group for a total of $800 to $1,000 per month. In any case, he would have started sending half his paycheck home to his family as quickly as possible.

As I walked today, with temperatures hovering near one hundred and five degrees, I thought about Hugo’s family. I realized that I had been thinking mostly about the emotional hole left in their lives by his death. I thought a lot about my own wife and son and how unbearably painful it would be if we were to lose any part of the whole that is our family. What I hadn’t thought much about until today, though, was the reality that Hugo’s family must have already been right on the precarious financial precipice when Hugo made the decision to head into the desert. What happens next to his family? Where will his wife turn to now in order to find the money to feed their children?

It’s been a lot to think about as I’ve walked, and I’ve certainly had plenty of time to think. I’ve tried to carry Hugo’s cross upright, with his name facing me so that I see it as I walk. Toward the end of our second day, I set the cross down next to my daypack beside the road. When I came back after filling up my water bottle, it had been picked up by someone else. Perhaps it was irrational, but I felt a deep sense of loss. There are almost one hundred of us hiking, and well over a hundred crosses – so it seemed kind of silly to try to hunt down and reclaim that particular cross. The next morning at daybreak, though, I rediscovered Hugo’s cross among the haphazard alter of crosses that folks had built as they arrived at the campsite the night before. I reclaimed it, and I find that I am much more careful about keeping an eye on it.

Somehow, it now feels like this is about honoring Hugo’s life and making a commitment to his family that I will see this through, and carry his memory with me as I do so. I’ll remember Hugo’s name long after we finish our trip this week, and that memory will be a reminder that every person who attempts to cross this desert comes with a story, and a family, and a spirit that hovers somewhere in the vague, undefined space that exists between desperation and hope.